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How to Cope With Traffic Stops and Asset Forfeiture

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One of the questions that comes up all the time is the question of how to handle traffic stops  and should we be worried about asset forfeiture? That’s very relevant to vandwellers because we spend more time on the road than most people and are also carrying everything we own in the world in the vehicle with us–and sometimes that includes fairly large sums of money. So how do we carry money and documents in a vehicle and not risk asset forfeiture?
Let me say first thing that the risk to any of us is very low and the chance of you ever needing anything in this post is very unlikely but with asset forfeiture in the news I want to at least address it. Here is a very good quote from the ACLU explaining what it is and how it works:

“Police abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws has shaken our nation’s conscience. Civil forfeiture allows police to seize — and then keep or sell — any property they allege is involved in a crime. Owners need not ever be arrested or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or even real estate to be taken away permanently by the government.

“Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting. For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property.”

We’ve had a lot of discussion about this on my forum, and one of the members there is a retired police officer and he wrote in this excellent post explaining the laws in his former state and explaining how to best avoid being a victim of unjust asset forfeiture. If you’re interested in the topic, I’d suggest reading the whole thread, but if not this post is found here:
“For an officer to find money, they’d have to initiate a search which generally requires a warrant, unless you give permission for a search. There are issues of officer safety which – depending on the state and circumstances – can permit the officer to check the passenger compartment near the occupants for weapons.
On a traffic stop, which is generally when you’ll be talking to an officer, you have to provide a license. It’s reasonable he ask questions to confirm you’re identity. ID photos aren’t the greatest, and information – such as addresses – often change. So confirming ID and information on a license is a reasonable request. You are not required to answer questions, but answering these makes things go more smoothly, and shows you are cooperating. Answering any other questions is up to you. Permitting a search of your vehicle is up to you. (Don’t do it!!!!)
It’s the officer’s job to ask questions. You’d be surprised how often a question like, “Do you have any drugs in your car?” Gets an answer like “Well, I got a little weed here.”  Often, the questions are just casual and part of the officers Standard Operating Procedure. If they don’t ask, they don’t get info. When someone says ‘No’, the automatic follow up question is, “Do you mind if I check? ” A very good answer to that is “Not today officer, I’d just prefer to get on my way’. There have been a lot of successful – and substantial – drug interdiction’s completed because officers asked a series of simple questions.
About Asset Forfeiture – an officer cannot legally seize your assets just because you have a lot of money.  If he finds money and drugs, or illegal weapons, money can be taken as evidence in a trafficking charge.  The legal assumption is if you have a certain quantity of drugs, they’re for sale and not just for personal consumption. The easy solution to that is don’t carry drugs and lots of money. Or any other contraband. Problem solved.
If you carry money in a locked container in the vehicle, secure the container in a part of the car you can’t reasonably reach without leaving the vehicle, or at least the front seat.  Under the back seat for instance. If the vehicle is ever searched without a warrant, you are not required to unlock the compartment. Just advise, “It contains personal items – nothing illegal “- and you don’t wish to open it. He may try to wheedle you a bit – “If there’s nothing illegal, why won’t you open it?” – but just remain politely firm. Often he’s just going through the motions.
The only way an officer can legally get into a locked container, without your permission, is with a search warrant from a judge, and he needs reasonable suspicion of a crime to get that such as he sees something, smells something, or you say something that sounds like an admission. Even if the driver of the car is arrested for something, the car can be inventoried before being towed off the roadway or over public property, but they cannot search into locked areas of the car or locked containers without a warrant. If there is reasonable suspicion, they can get a warrant while the car is on the impound lot, then do a complete search. An inventory of property in a towed vehicle is not a search, but contraband found in an inventory can be used as a basis for charges.
A lot of info you may never need.  Short answer- keep money locked in a container that is secured to the vehicle somehow.  Mine has a cable system looped though the rear seat frame. With proper tools, the cable could be cut and the box removed but it would take a thief time. It prevents the box from being casually removed for any reason. Make it so it’s not visible – under the rear seat, for example.  Politely refuse to answer questions not relevant to the stop, and don’t give permission for searches. Don’t offer to unlock locked containers. Just advise it’s personal, or business related material, and there’s nothing illegal inside. If you want to be more forthcoming, that’s fine, but not necessary. No need to extend the conversation.
Keeping transactional records with cash is a good idea and will help alleviate any suspicion should an officer get into the locked box by whatever means. Also remember, once the officer concludes the reason for a traffic stop, he cannot detain you further. He hands you a ticket, a warning, or says “I’m just giving you a warning,” the reason for that stop is over. If he continues asking questions, politely ask, “Excuse me officer, but am I free to go?” The answer should be ,”yes”. Officers have a reasonable amount of time to conclude a traffic stop. They cannot extend that stop for investigative purposes without reasonable suspicion – the smell of marijuana, for example. But they must provide the reasons for extending the stop to you and, ultimately, to a judge.
Hope this info helps.  But also remember, cops are human and make mistakes. There’s a lot to know, and no one remembers everything. Search and seizure should be something every officer has down pat, but not always. Also, some shouldn’t have the badge they’re wearing. Just don’t provide them with any type of justification that can be used against you. Firm, but polite. You’re probably being recorded. The officer knows this as well. If the officer makes a mistake, and conducts an illegal search, that can be handled later in court. Yea, it can be really inconvenient for you, but still don’t act in a manner that provokes and can be used against you. Best advice I can offer.”

How to Handle Traffic Stops

I’m not a cop or lawyer so I’m not qualified to advise you, but I found an excellent article on what to do during traffic stops so I advise you to read it and follow his basic rules, especially since they agree with the advise given above by a former cop. Read the article here:
Here are his three basic rules quoted from that article:

  1. “Be polite and respectful.  A bit of class and respect will take you far in life, and it will make the next steps easier for you.
  2. Verbally resist demands.  Never, ever resist physically, but do resist verbally and respectfully until it becomes clear you’ll be arrested if you don’t comply.
  3. Do not answer questions. No matter what an officer tells you, you are never compelled to speak to the police or answer their questions without a lawyer present. You may think that being helpful and answering questions (even friendly ones) can help your cause. You’re wrong.”

Basically, after giving him your license, registration and proof of insurance you don’t answer any of his questions unless they relate directly to the reason he stopped you. Every time he tells you to do something you ask him why and then do it in a way to thwart his next step. You never answer any of his questions. Refuse in a polite and friendly manner and tone but refuse all the same. This sentence should be your response to his every question not directly related to the traffic stop:

“Officer, I respectfully choose to not answer any questions today.”

“Early in your interaction would be a good time to tell the officer you respectfully choose not to answer questions today. He’ll probably be annoyed, but that’s life!

If at any time during your stop you feel pressured to answer a question, don’t. You are protected by The Constitution’s 5th Amendment from testifying against or incriminating yourself. You cannot get in trouble for refusing to answer a question.

It’s very important that you do not ever lie to a police officer, so the best option is to always politely decline to answer. I cannot stress enough how awkward this will feel. You may be made to think that you’re digging yourself into a lot of trouble, but you aren’t.

Not answering is the safest and smartest way for you to handle questions from the police even if you have nothing to hide.”

If the officer asks you to step outside your car, take these actions:

“Once you leave your car, there are a few very important steps to take to protect and clearly communicate your rights:

  1. Roll your window all the way up.
  2. Lock the doors.
  3. As you exit, say very clearly to the officer: “I do not consent to any searches of me or my property.”

The courts have ruled that a traffic stop can only go on so long before it becomes an unreasonable search and seizure, so there is legal limit to how long you can be pulled over on the side of the road. Since you aren’t answering any of his questions, all he legally can do is write you a ticket or arrest you.

“This phrase is this most important one that you will need to remember any time you’re being stopped by the police:”

“Officer, am I being detained, or am I free to go?”

“Hopefully, any traffic stop you’re involved in will not require it, but this simple question can make everything a lot more clear for you, and will force the officer to get to the point rather than continue to ask probing and escalating questions.

Why does this work? Because for an officer to legally detain you, he must have probable cause that you have committed or are about to commit a crime. Granted, “probable cause” is a pretty vague requirement and easy for a determined cop to get around, but asking the question, “Am I being detained?” can save you time and trouble.

In any interaction with the police, you are either in one state or the other: being detained or free to go. There is no in between.”

If you broke a traffic law, it’s reasonable he detain you for that stop, but if you haven’t done anything else, then he’s bluffing and searching for something. By asking if you are detained, you’re calling his bluff: put-up or shut-up. If you’re ever told that you’re being detained, your very next words should be that you want a lawyer and then not another word.
It’s very unlikely you will ever need any of this info, but it’s better to have it and never need it, than to one day need it and not have it.

I’m making Videos on my good friends James and Kyndal’s YouTube Channel. See them here:

Thanks for supporting this site by using these links to Amazon. I’ll make a small percentage on your purchase and it won’t cost you anything, even if you buy something different.

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  1. Maura

    Bob, I think you should be president (LOL), I just love how straight forward, intelligent and calm you are. I agree that being polite to a police officer is very appropriate, but also not getting flummoxed and holding your ground is as well. Looking forward to your youtube videos..just cause ya make me smile!

    • Bob

      Thanks Maura!

  2. Rob

    That was good!

    • Lucy

      W O W, this blog has become ‘ pretty holistic ‘ Bob is addressing more & more aspects of the nomadic life, excellent job, Bob !!!
      My regards, Lucy.

      • Bob

        Thanks Lucy, I try.

    • Bob

      Thanks Rob!

  3. Gary S

    Thanks Bob! awesome post my friend 🙂

    • Bob

      Thanks Gary!

  4. Mike

    Bob, Excellent and timely. I have had everything I own taken from me in the past. Your advice is correct, NEVER comply with a search, ALLWAYS ask if I am being detained or AM I FREE TO GO… THEN SHUT UP. If they change the subject, REPEAT UNTIL YOU GET AN ANSWER TO HIS QUESTION, period. ALLWAYS lock your doors if asked to step out of he vehicle, PERIOD. There is nothing to answer properly besides, is this your current address..yes.
    Where are you headed and where are you going, or where do you work, HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE TRAFFIC STOP. Be polite, and simply say, I’m going to get gas, I came from my campsite, I’m camping…AM I BEING DETAINED OR AM I FREE TO GO??? And as Bob points out…NEVER CONSENT TO A search…”just say no” to searches. Believe me, there are policemen who “DO NOT CARE about YOU, OR YOUR LIFE” PERIOD. Those types are NOT YOUR FRIEND, NOT LOOKING OUT FOR YOU, OR YOUR FAMILY, and will participate to any degree to send you to prison or jail, and steal everything you own to buy new devices to enable them to cripple more citizens. I smoke pot for PTSD, I am not a criminal,.. the war on drugs turned out to be the “War on citizens”. Take Bob’s advice on this one, trust me, I been there.
    Thank you Bob for this timely and important post. Those who use Medical Marijuana as I do can be easily influenced into cooperation with someone trained in “How to ask 20 questions to screw a citizen”. Don’t drive when your medicated, and practice the above responses until they are second nature, and KEEP YOUR BIG MOUTH SHUT. Advice I wish I had 30 years ago.

    • Bob

      Thanks Mike, I like your passion.

  5. Cae

    When I was a kid the police were not something to be afraid of. My how things have changed.

    • Bob

      Very true Cae.

  6. Canine

    Trying to compete with a law enforcement officer is like being a 90-pound old man in a boxing ring with the current heavy weight champion; you are going to lose. I don’t see a problem with using the law to even up the odds a bit even when I “don’t have anything to hide”.
    If you “know” you are completely legal, you are deluded. Maybe you are legal, but you cannot always know if you are or aren’t. No one person in the world is smart enough to be able to keep up with all the changes of all the laws in all 50 states while being able to know how each cop is going to interpret and enforce each law in each situation.
    Becoming a felon can be as easy as accidentally taking the wrong exit into New Jersey with a 1-ounce can of bear spray. What is legal and common in one state can put you behind bars for years as a felon in another state. Even going from one city to another city in the same state can be problematic.
    The law enforcement officer is just doing his/her job. I respect that. I have a job, too: to remain a free, productive member of society. I have just as much respect for that. Sometimes more.

    • Bob

      Thanks Canine, well said.

  7. William McDonald

    Very timely article Bob.
    With the economy on the edge of sliding into another and deeper recession and money getting even tighter, especially for local governments, I expect the pace of the asset forfeitures to pick up.
    Out of town van dwellers are a tailor made easy pickings for the local boys in blue.

    • Bob

      William, I’m afraid you’re right, it does appear to be a for-profit enterprise sometimes.

  8. Maggie A

    Excellent post; most relevant. Question: How to handle border patrol on the highways and homeland security at airports? Thank you, Maggie

    • Bob

      Maggie, I haven’t done any research on these so I can’t help you. I basically am fine with the TSA, the truth is you don’t have a constitutional right to fly on an airplane so you just have to jump through their hoops. I think what they are doing is reasonable and I’m fine with it. Just follow the rules.
      With the border patrol it’s a little different. You don’t have a right to enter the country without being asked for ID and being searched. I have no problem with that at the border crossing. However, the courts have truly allowed our rights to be whittled away at by extending it away from the border. If I’m 30 miles from the border then I think it’s totally unconstitutional to search without reasonable cause or a search warrant. But that’s what the courts have ordered so you have no choice but allow it. Resist and you’ll go to jail and I don;t want to go to jail.

  9. Lori Hicks

    Great post!

    • Bob

      Thanks Lori!

  10. Calvin R

    I was raised poor and rough. The real exception was “a badge and a gun.” My parents went to a lot of trouble to emphasize politeness and not upsetting law enforcement because “they can kill you and get away with it.” (True then and now) I was not part of their “nice people” realm. (“The police used to serve the people” did not apply to everyone.) I believe that early training saved my life at one time or another. It certainly got me out of undeserved and deserved traffic tickets.
    However, the Sheriff’s Department of this county now uses few or no standard police vehicles. If you drive a nice SUV here, it might be the next cruiser. “Attitude” or the deputy’s biases might also determine whether you pass through here in physical safety. Please take Bob’s advice seriously. I am aware of other places worse than here. Law enforcement has never been “as seen on TV.”

    • Bob

      Thanks Calvin!

  11. Danny in Thomasville, GA

    Asset forfeiture??!! Thanks for educating me on another subject, Bob. I made a hard copy so I can review the info and be prepared ahead of time before something like this might happen. Not being paranoid, but you never know what type of policeman might stop you. Don’t think many Sheriff Andy Taylor types exist any more.
    Thanks Bob.
    GO BRONCO’S ! 50th Super Bowl!

    • Bob

      Danny, I think most of them are good guys deserving our respect and admiration, but there are enough bad ones we have to be realistic and take care of ourselves.

  12. joe

    police are just not to be trusted now a days I know they are doing there job but it is not like years back they would help you more than often to many other odd balls on the road makes for cops being to uncertain about you so most times they go over the limit the days of Mayberry are gone be safe out there Bob go broncos

    • Bob

      Joe, I’m actually very pro-cop, most are amazing people doing a hard job well. But there are enough bad ones that we need to protect ourselves.

  13. Linda Sand

    I guess I’ve been lucky. We were stopped for not having current tabs on our popup trailer’s plates. I explained I bought the tabs in December before the price went up in Jan. then stashed them away waiting for camping season then forgot I had not installed them. The cop checked his computer and found I had bought them when I said. He gave us a fixit ticket but allowed us 30 days instead of the usual 7 days so we could continue on our 3-week vacation instead of having to go back home now.
    Another time, we were pulled over for driving our RV in the left lane in a 4-lane commercial area, supposedly blocking traffic. I said we were looking for the Denny’s which we knew was on the left somewhere ahead of us so we didn’t want to be in the right lane when we found it. That cop actually apologized for stopping us and wished us a good breakfast.
    There are still good cops out there. But, I’m memorizing the above suggested responses just in case.

    • Bob

      Thanks Linda, for those great stories. I could come off as a cop-hater by the post but in fact I am pro-cop. Any body who goes to work every day knowing he may have to die to protect the public is a hero in my book. But, there are bad ones as well so it’s best to protect yourself.

  14. Dust-in-the-Wind

    Because of a recent experience, I HIGHLY recommend spending a few bucks (good ones are less than $100) on a dash cam. I was on I-75 in Michigan driving in the lane next to the shoulder at 62 mph (my normal speed) when a vehicle that could have been a twin of mine roared past in the center lane going 87 mph. I know his speed because a motorcycle officer pulled me over about two miles later for the offense. I explained politely that he had made a mistake and that I could prove it in court if necessary. After about 15 minutes, he came back and told me to have a nice day AND TO SLOW DOWN! I guess he didn’t want to admit to the mistake. Anyway, it would have been a $250 ticket, points on my license and jacked up insurance rates for a couple of years. Well worth the $89 I spent on the dash cam. It occurred to me later what a valuable asset that dash cam would be if I was ever in an accident, not my fault, but no reliable witnesses.

    • Bob

      Thanks Dust in the Wind, a ash cam seems like a great idea!!

      • Lucy

        Question: how legal are dash cameras ?

        • Cae

          They’re advertised on TV all the time here in CA.

        • Bob

          Lucy, they are very legal. In fact the courts have settled that we have no reasonable right to privacy in public places, except on our person. So videotapping in public is legal. However, in some states recording audio is illegal without consent. But since your dash cam wouldn’t be picking up audio, it would be 100% legal. If it picks up audio you could have a problem without consent

  15. Pama

    This was an excellent post. The technical information is wise-to-know and the “polite but firm attitude” info is equally important should anyone ever need to communicate with an LEO during such matters. I am a former Police 911 Dispatcher. I might also add to the post this info: Never let your hands be hidden in any way from the LEO. Period. Always keep them in full sight. If you need to get something from your glove box, etc., ask for the officer’s permission first (BEFORE taking those actions). These days, the slightest unannounced movements can be misunderstood at best, and deadly if taken as a treat to the officer. Just a friendly reminder that they, too, are on their guard while performing a traffic stop. Ask any of them and they will tell you “There is no such thing as a Routine Traffic Stop!” Know this is their thinking and for some a fear-level factor, especially for Green Rookies and the older-ones not far from retirement. And also know that the time-of-day or night doe NOT matter either — crime has no clock except that it will choose its time, its place and its victim. So undue “surprise” is NOT something you ever what a LEO to have only micro-seconds to judge as harmful or not harmful.
    I wonder if there are little flash cards with this kind of citizen info? I know that I carry The Photographer’s Bill Of Rights flash cards at arms reach. Maybe something like a flash card for Traffic Stops and Search requests would be good for a vehicle’s dash board…
    Maybe the times today have reached a level where such a flash card would be wise to have and refer to — then it would not seem so hard to say or so contrived either, just the facts to repeat aloud. Just a thought maybe.

    • Canine

      Pama, having a card is a good idea. I don’t have a problem using the written form of the English language instead of the verbal form, but some take offense to using any form of communication other than verbal. A flash card as reference is a great idea.
      A bus driver had an incident where a drunk man and woman were arguing on the bus so badly that the driver asked them to leave. The guy and woman started getting physical and all the bus driver could say to the unruly passengers was, “911. 911.” What he was trying to communicate was that the Patriot Act applied to fights on the bus and that he was going to call law enforcement, but all he blurted out was, “911,” because he got nervous and lost his ability to communicate effectively and calmly.
      If he had had a card to read, maybe he could have handled it better and maybe saved himself the trouble of a broken window.

    • Linda Sand

      I second the idea of a flash card telling you your rights and suggested responses. When I used a Segway as a mobility aid I carried a copy of the statute that allowed me to do that in case I was ever questioned. Now that I have a small 3-wheeler mall cops are less likely to see it as a toy but some malls say it must be a 4-wheeler to count so it is still helpful to have the correct wording with you. And having the flashcard on your dash or somewhere you see it regularly is also likely to help you remember what to say.

    • Bob

      Pama, thank you so much for those great tips and reminders, very good! I also think the flash card idea is a very good idea!

  16. Ming

    very thought provoking info and ideas. I will bookmark this page for future reference.

    • Bob

      Thanks Ming!

  17. Kenny

    Bob: You had a reply to Maggie regarding the Border Patrol being able to search your vehicle without a warrant 30 miles away from the border, is this correct???

  18. zardac

    I don’t think the situation with the Border Patrol is as grim as described.
    The ACLU link you posted provides limits to the agency’s authority in the 100 mile zone…
    “Border Patrol, nevertheless, cannot pull anyone over without “reasonable suspicion” of an immigration violation or crime (reasonable suspicion is more than just a “hunch”). Similarly, Border Patrol cannot search vehicles in the 100-mile zone without a warrant or “probable cause” (a reasonable belief, based on the circumstances, that an immigration violation or crime has likely occurred.”
    and the agency website lists the same constraints:
    “Border Patrol checkpoints do not give Border Patrol Agents carte blanche to automatically search persons and their vehicles, other then in the manner described above. In order to conduct a legal search under the Fourth Amendment, the agents must develop particularly probable cause to conduct a lawful search. Probable cause can be developed from agent observations, records checks, non-intrusive canine sniffs and other established means. Motorist’s may consent to a search, but are not required to do so.”
    I’m guessing some agents are more faithful to the law than others, and I think many of our presumed rights have been whittled away over the past few decades, so I wouldn’t be surprised if real life differs from what’s on paper.
    Thanks for the information you provide on your blog. You seem like an insightful, intelligent, and genial individual.

    • Bob

      Thanks zardac! I appreciate it! Bob

  19. Christina

    Your note about reasonable suspicion could help inform a lot of drivers at risk in these situations. Your mention of the fact that it is unlikely that your readers will need this info is a positive, hopefully accurate, viewpoint.

    • Bob

      Thanks Christina, hopefully it’s a problem none of us will ever have.

  20. Christina

    Your comments about respect make a valid point. Some people have only a few moments to judge the severity of a situation before they decide their course of action; this is one situation where that is likely the case.

  21. Abby

    I have the tendency to get flustered when I get pulled over. However, I do try to be polite and never answer the question why did they pull me over. Very informative post, thanks for sharing!

  22. Dean

    How about switching your cell phone to video mode when being stopped? And then saying ‘for quality control purposes this is being recorded’ or something to that effect. One should have your license, registration and proof of insurance ready so you don’t have to ask to open your glove box.

  23. Michael

    Gr8 tips, man.

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